Like a Deer in Headlights – Adrenaline Crash

Scary Stories Session 8: Like a Deer in Headlights looks at our ever prevalent anxiety in the modern world. Harking back to a time when we once needed to run from predators, the body’s natural fight or flight mechanism is activated for any manner of incidents in our daily lives where it is neither necessary nor useful.

But our stress system relies on two processes. The first is adrenaline, and this is the one we hear about most. It triggers our fight or flight mechanism, heightens our senses and generally gives us superpowers. While it is a response to a high stress situation, in itself, adrenaline can actually make us feel good. We have all experienced the euphoric effects of an “adrenaline rush” at one point or another.

But all of this is relatively short-lived. And in the aftermath of our adrenaline rush, our levels of another hormone begin to rise. Cortisol is released in the second process of our stress system. It works over a longer period than adrenaline, and gradually builds up over time but it has much greater momentum than adrenaline as a result. And cortisol is responsible for negative thoughts and anxiety related physical effects.

The problem with our stress system was that it was designed for the adrenaline to be dissipated through action, the cortisol as a result had shorter time to build up and left our systems quicker. It’s after-effects of tiredness and the feeling of crashing would help the body recuperate after sudden and intense exercise. But we are too often stressed by things that require no action; say, the difference between feeling stressed about a busy commute and skydiving. And as a result, cortisol builds up more gradually as the effects of the adrenaline last longer and so it takes much longer to leave our systems. When this type of anxiety is simply part of our daily lives, cortisol builds to a point that even at resting there is a sustained level of it within our systems. And this has a dramatic effect on our mental and physical well-being.

Humans are highly adapted for a much more precarious life. Our concrete jungles? Well, not so much.

Verity ClaytonComment